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Learning Paths Podcast
Kate McDonnell-Dowling

Kate McDonnell-Dowling

Kate McDonnell-Dowling’s interest in pharmacology has taken her around the world, in classrooms and clinics from Ireland to Australia to the United States. She is currently a lecturer in biological chemistry and molecular pharmacology at Harvard Medical School, where she leads courses as part of the HMX online learning team.

In this episode of the Learning Paths podcast, Kate shares strategies she finds most effective for teaching in-person and online – and what she learned from managing both at once as part of a unique hybrid course at the Harvard Extension School.

Episode Transcript

Ben Rubenstein: Well, Kate, thank you so much for joining me here today. This is the Learning Paths podcast, so I’d love to start by talking to you a little bit about your own learning path, maybe starting from your undergrad study and thinking about how you progressed from there.

Kate McDonnell-Dowling: Sure. So it was a long path and maybe not the most straightforward either. For my undergraduate degree, I did general science, and ended up majoring in physiology and also had a minor in anatomy. So I gained a lot of understanding of human biology and how the body works, and learning about different diseases and disorders and how that affects the human body. But we never really, I didn’t have that understanding of how to treat diseases, and that’s something I really wanted to learn. So I decided to take some time out. I took a year out to think about what I wanted to do. During that time I was traveling, and I also gained some experience. So I moved to Australia and I was able to work at a clinic there. We’re working with patients who suffer with addiction, and so we’re treating those patients and I’m learning more about the disease and how addiction works and different ways to treat this. But I wasn’t really understanding the science behind that. And so I really wanted to understand the science behind addiction, why some people are more susceptible than others, how it works, and then also the treatments for that and how they work as well. So I decided to come back to Ireland and do a master’s in neuropharmacology. So we’re learning a lot about diseases that affected the central nervous system and different ways we could treat those. And then for my research project, I actually focused on early life development and how that can be impacted by different experiences. So we focused on depression for mothers that are depressed and taking antidepressants as a treatment, how does that affect their unborn child and what are the consequences and long-term behavioral effects on their offspring.

And then I generally wanted to stay in the field of neuropharmacology, but kind of moved back into addiction. So I decided to do my PhD in neuropharmacology as well. And this time I was focusing on early-life neuro development and how drugs are abused can affect that as well. So a lot of women that suffer with addiction can become pregnant or are pregnant when they become addicted. So we’re looking at the consequences of those drugs on neurodevelopment; that was really the focus of my PhD as well. From there on, I got a Fulbright scholarship, and I was able to carry out research in the same kind of general field of neuropharmacology. I went to Tufts University here in Boston. And I was focusing on stress as well as drug abuse and the effects of those on early life development. So that leads up to where I am today, pretty much.

Ben: And so during that entire path did you always plan to go into teaching as part of that, was that kind of the end goal?

Kate McDonnell-Dowling: Yeah, it was always for me. I loved the research. I loved carrying out the research, getting the results and kind of, you know, presenting and all that as well. But at the same time, I was also teaching full-time as well. So I was lucky enough to have the same supervisor for my master’s and for my PhD project, and he was very passionate about teaching. So when I started my PhD with him he gave me the opportunity to teach courses full-time during my PhD. And so I actually ended up teaching a lot of the courses that I’d taken as a student in my master’s class. So having done those courses as a student and then being in the position of being the teacher for those core courses was really, really beneficial. I mean, you’re looking back on different concepts that you’ve learned as a student, saying, ‘I did not get that at the time,’ or ‘I didn’t think that was covered very well,’ or ‘that’s not what I took away from that.’

So I was able to take on these courses and from the start, step back, think about my experience as a student and then, you know, take that experience and apply it then being an instructor or teacher as well, and thinking about different ways that we could present the content and then teach the class with that experience in mind. So from then I just knew that I loved teaching. I had a great mentor at the time who was very passionate about it. So from then on, I knew that I wanted to teach. I thought I might do research alongside, but I was thankful to have the opportunity to be teaching full-time and not doing the research.

Ben: You talked about, you know, that experience of going from student to teacher. Are there particular strategies or ways of teaching some of these concepts that you’ve really sort of honed over your career that you find like, this is really effective, and I wish I had had this when I was learning this?

Kate McDonnell-Dowling: Yeah. I think when I look back at my own learning experience, I think a lot of it was lecture-style. I mean, a lot of us learned like that, you know, large rooms with maybe hundreds of students and one lecturer having a PowerPoint slide that they’re going through, and just presenting the content to you in one hour. We know now as instructors or as teachers that active learning is much more powerful, as well as a bit more engaging for students as well. So that’s something I took on very early on in my teaching career – I was thinking about how can we bring in active learning, how can we have the students actually, you know, almost teaching themselves by doing activities and having those things in the classroom rather than just presenting for an hour and talking about the content. So active learning is something that I’ve tried to implement as much as possible throughout my teaching career.

Ben: I know you’ve had a lot of opportunities to apply active learning principles while teaching online through HMX. I was wondering if you could talk about some of the sort of unique benefits and maybe some of the unique challenges of this format of teaching online.

Kate McDonnell-Dowling: Sure. I think one of the main things that I learned very early on teaching online through HMX was that it’s not just delivering the content to the students, which you might just do in a classroom through a lecture in PowerPoint or something like that. But it’s really thinking about the content and what is the best way to present that, what is the best way for students to learn that? So we use lots of visuals, we do lots of different modalities where there is an animation, an interactive, a whiteboard video – there’s loads of different ways that we can deliver that content to students. And I think that’s the main benefit of online learning, really thinking what is the best way for students to learn this content, and then what is the best way to deliver that? So the learning is the best that it can be and the content is delivered in the best way that it can be. So I think that’s a huge benefit of online learning.

I think it goes without saying one of the, I wouldn’t say disadvantages, but one of the limitations is obviously not being in front of the student and not having that contact. I think sometimes you might even see a student raising an eyebrow, you know, they’re not getting something, and then you can react to that and just check in with them. You can’t do that in online learning, but of course we have ways of, you know, having the ability for students to be able to ask questions, we have discussion forums so they can ask content questions, they can talk to each other and so on. So we’re really trying to still create that sense of community within the students and also with the professors. So I think that’s one way that we can overcome that limitation, definitely.

Ben: Many educators around the world right now are needing to sort of figure out how they can maintain that connection with their students as they’re doing a lot more remotely. And I know that you have recently had the opportunity to sort of do a hybrid model of that, where you are teaching students remotely and in person. Can you talk a little bit about the pharmacology course that you’re teaching in this way and what exactly the setup looks like for that?

Kate McDonnell-Dowling: Sure. So it’s a little bit complex as there are many layers to this. It’s an introduction to pharmacology course taught at Harvard Extension School. And it’s a flipped classroom in that we use the HMX Pharmacology course actually that’s taken in the student’s own time at home. So they take this basically as their homework. And then we use the classroom sessions then to do active learning where we go through problem sets together, case studies and so on. So that’s what we call a flipped classroom. But then on top of that, then we also have another layer where students can participate in the class in a number of different ways. So students can attend these live sessions in the classroom in person. They can also join the sessions through web conference, so using the Zoom. And then – pre-pandemic of course, this is all pre-pandemic, we didn’t have in-person this semester – but we also have the, we record these sessions and then offer these students on-demand access as well. So they can actually watch these after the fact if they’re not able to attend the live session as well. So there’s a number of ways they can participate, but then there’s also a flipped classroom. So lots of different levels to this. And yeah, absolutely. One of the challenges that I faced early on was how do I make this class, or course, as engaging for the on-demand students or the remote students as for the ones that are in the classroom. You don’t want any student to be at a disadvantage based on how they’re joining the class, and you want the experience to be as close as possible for the remote students as the ones in the classrooms.

So that’s something I thought about very early on. We used different tools like on the videos, we have a tool called Opencast Social, which is a chat function, so that when I pose a question in the classroom, the students watching the on-demand recordings can actually input their answers into that chat function. They can see the other students’ replies and they can talk to each other through that chat function. So really creating that separate community or that group of students that can interact with each other, almost live, outside of the fact, and make sure that they’re still engaging or participating as they would be if they were in the classroom as well.

So I think another thing that’s important to do as well is to talk to those students as if they’re there. So you may be watching a video a week later and it’s quite awkward to do, but I think it is important to talk directly to the students. So even if you have students in front of you or you have some in the web conference, I always talk to the camera and say, ‘if you’re watching the recordings, then you should be doing this right now,’ and giving them instructions, but also making them feel like they are engaged or that we know that they are doing the class as well. So that’s something I’ve always adapted as well from.

Ben: I’m sure for this particular class, you had a lot of support in using the technology maybe, and, and understanding what to do when, and you know, do you feel like this is something that any educator could do on their own? I mean, how much kind of learning was there involved from day one? Did you do a lot of training outside of the particular topic area to really make this effective?

Kate McDonnell-Dowling: Yeah. I mean, Harvard Extension School thinks about this an awful lot. So they offer lots of different trainings, whether it’s just Zoom training and so on. I think now, during the pandemic, everyone is using Zoom. And so a lot of these platforms that you might not have been familiar with before, now you’re familiar with. I think it does take a lot of getting used to teaching remotely. I think, especially when you are teaching to a classroom, you might have agreements or disagreements and so on, but when you’re teaching on Zoom, it’s completely silent. Everyone is on mute, right? So you don’t actually hear anything except your own voice. And so a lot of that scale is just getting used to it, but I think the actual technology side of things is very straightforward. I think anyone should be able to adapt it and to use these different technologies as well. And there’s so many resources out there now to be able to learn how to use these different things as well.

Ben: And from the student perspective, I imagine you received some feedback from students who took the course with you. I mean, what did students say about it, and did it differ, I guess, between those who were coming in person and those who were remote, synchronously and asynchronously? What was the feedback you got?

Kate McDonnell-Dowling: Yeah, it is definitely mixed. I mean, no matter how much you try to make the experience as close as possible, they’re going to be different. So even between the people that were in the classroom and the Zoom conference, what we found was when we went into the small groups to work together through problem sets or so on and so forth, maybe four or five people, the people in the classroom are kind of interacting more naturally. So they’re having maybe some side conversations that aren’t really happening in those Zoom breakout sessions. And so the timing of those were quite different, where we had people in the classroom not being finished at all, and the people in the Zoom classroom waiting and being finished quite early, because they’re just kind of getting to the activity and then not really having any other side conversation. So being flexible and trying to manage the timing of those things took an awful lot of time at the start to try and optimize and make sure that no one was sitting still for too long. So that was just one example of things that we adapted over time and were flexible on them.

Ben: You mentioned that even outside of this kind of hybrid nature of the course, part of this is just applying this flipped classroom approach where students are doing a lot of the actual learning sort of outside of the class and bringing that knowledge to the classroom. What are your feelings about that generally as an effective teaching method? Have you used it in other courses before?

Kate McDonnell-Dowling: I had some experience with using it before, but not to this extent. I think I’ve often provided materials for students outside of the classroom that they had to prepare or read through or go through before they came to the class. And then that was the basis of the class. But I’ve not had this situation before where all of the content is taught outside of the class. We’re really just using the live sessions to do active learning and to go through problem sets and things together. So I thought it was very beneficial.

I think a lot of the time we know active learning is very effective. But a lot of time you’re also trying to deliver all of the content to the students in your classroom session and then try and fit some active learning in, and active learning takes a lot of time. You know, you can’t just fit five minutes in there, and then 10 minutes in there – you’d need to give the student the time to go through and, you know, do it effectively as well. So I have two hours for my live classroom sessions, which is just solely focused on these activities as well. So I’m not under pressure to have to deliver any content. I just have my activities and we know what we’re going to get through in the classroom. But also the HMX course is beautiful in my mind. I mean, it’s everything I would want an online course to be. We spent a lot of time doing it. So I feel very confident in the content there as well. So there’s both of those things together doing a flipped classroom, but also having that HMX course the way it is. It means that the experience is much, much better.

Ben: Well, I think that with the pandemic now, it’s forcing a lot of people to kind of reevaluate everything and maybe even thinking about, once we’re past this, do things still look the same as they were before, right? So how do you think the experiences that you’ve had are going to change your approach going forward? What will you kind of keep, what will you maybe say that’s only for that particular situation? You know, what do you think is around the corner for you?

Kate McDonnell-Dowling: When you mentioned about the pandemic making you have to teach in a different way – I think at the start, a lot of people were thinking about, how do I do the class I used to do in person over Zoom, and how do I make that work? Rather than stepping back and thinking about, okay, I’m teaching through Zoom, how should I teach? And that’s a different question I think, not trying to just deliver something I used to deliver in a certain way through Zoom. It’s delivering it in the best way possible. So that’s something I always think about is, take a step back, think about the student perspective. How are they receiving this? How are they learning from this? And then designing my courses and my content around that and how to deliver it most effectively for how the students are participating in the course or receiving the content. I think that’s something I think I will always bring forward, is putting myself in the student’s shoes, thinking about how they’re learning and their experience, and then taking the course from there.

Ben: Great. Well, I think that’s great advice. That is something that’s sometimes hard to think about in the moment, especially as you’re scrambling to change an entire class on the fly. But hopefully as people are able to take those steps back and really think about what’s going to be most effective they can take that to heart. Well, I really appreciate you taking some time to speak with me today and I think that our listeners will appreciate that as well.

Kate McDonnell-Dowling: Great. Thanks so much for having me.

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